Well-being in College Students

Some interesting data on well-being in college students.

Posted Jan 09, 2015

Yesterday, I did a half-day workshop on college student well-being. There seemed to be consensus in the room about the following: (a) the mental health of modern college students is not good (there is much data to support this, see here); (b) the disease-pill model of anxiety and depression is seriously problematic at a societal level, even if it is granted that psychopharmachology helps some individuals manage neurotic symptoms; and that (c) we need a fresh way of thinking about mental health.

I was making the point, from my unified approach, that we need to think holistically about psychological health in terms of character functioning and well-being, in a physical, biological, psychological and social context. This perspective was well-received from a diverse group of academics. The other point I was making was we can we can frame much of "psychopathology" in terms of levels of psychological well-being and that can be effectively researched.

For example, in one of my recent research projects, I developed a six item measure of well-being based on the work of Carol Ryff (see here for the measure, which yields a score ranging from 6 to 42). Using the scale, we can usefully divide folks into five groups, from low well-being to very high well-being as follows: 

Group 1  = Low WB, total score 18 or lower. These individuals are having difficulty in most areas of functioning and would almost certainly be in need of assistance

Group 2 = Somewhat Low WB, total score between 19 and 24. These individuals explicitly identify as being lower than “average” and are likely having notable difficulties functioning in one or more major areas of life.

Group 3 = Mixed to Somewhat High WB, total score between 25 and 30. These individuals will vary substantially. Some will be in need of assistance, others will be more “realistic” and reflective about areas they would like to improve in. 

Group 4 = Somewhat High to High, scoring between 31 and 36. These individuals are likely doing quite well in most areas, probably have good resiliency and are likely not in need of services.

Group 5 = High to Very High, scoring between 37 and 42. These individuals are likely flourishing and feeling fulfilled.

In 2013, 852 college students at James Madison took the measure, and this was the breakdown in terms of group frequency:

This gives us a good visual on the distrubition of psychological well-being of the group. It suggests about a quarter are doing very well, another 45% are doing quite well. Thirty percent are likely having some troubles and not functioning optimally. The two lowest groups are likely having clinically signfiicant symptoms. This is suggested by the data on levels of anxiety and depression by the groups.


In addition to considering the percentage of individuals who had seriously contemplated suicide in the past year. 


Although there are lots of different and interesting angles to look at via this data set, I found the following graph particularly interesting. It shows a fairly strong negative relation between regular  napping and well-being, and a fairly strong positive relation between exercising and well-being. Interestingly, it also shows NO relationship between regular binge drinking and well-being.

 The take home point here is that well-being represents an alternative framing of psychological functioning than the traditional mental disorder approach, and it can be quantitatively assessed with relative ease and yields data that can inform policy and raises new interesting questions (e.g., Is there really no general, aggregate relationship between binge drinking and psychological well-being? Is the relationship between exercise, napping and well-being causal? and so on). The construct of well-being also provides a framing for psychological functioning that I think is much healthier for society at large than the idea that if you are suffering or impaired you must have some sort of brain dysfunction.

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